Friday, March 26, 2010

Why We Should Stop Running to Help Developing Nations....and Start Paying Attention

This is the third and final blog in a series that examines the concept  of bias as it relates to CSR, leadership and cultural intervention.  The core business elements of The Acacia Group, Socially Responsible Leadership Experiences 

“Deep in every liberal sensibility is a profound sense that in a world of moral uncertainty one idea is sacred, one belief cannot be compromised: the rich should help the poor, and the form of this help should be aid…[and yet]…across the globe the recipients of this aid are worse off: much worse off. Aid has helped make the poor poorer, and growth slower.” Dambisa Moyo, in "Dead Aid"
Over the past 5 decades, developed countries have poured over a trillion dollars (US) into developing countries. Yet for many observers there is little evidence of the sustainable improvements in the lives of the world’s poor that would be expected from this level of investment. Something does not seem to be working. Books are written, suggestions made, studies conducted, debates held, and international commitments made. So why is there this ongoing deep disconnect between the desire of people and countries to help others from making a sustainable and positive difference?

Stories and myths abound of well intentioned individuals and organizations that follow the well trod path to developing communities and countries wanting to make a difference and only making problems. And yet there are successes. From my own experiences and readings on the topic I am increasingly curious about the emergence of what appear to be approaches that seem to break from our cultural beliefs regarding development and aid. I am curious about a need for a shift in our thinking:

From "We are experts" To "I have something to learn from you" - North American culture values experts and specialists. We are well educated and we believe that our knowledge is true – therefore if we bring our knowledge to a developing community or country their circumstances will improve. This is a belief that leaves little room in our thinking to hear and perceive the knowledge of the people we are coming to help.

From "We can bring in a solution from elsewhere and it will work here" To "Your circumstances are unique and need to be understood before a solution can be created" – Modernism has led us to believe that processes and structures can be transferred from one context to another and that they will `fit’. Years of organizational experience should be telling us that this is rarely the experience.

From "We can talk about your needs without you in the conversation" To 'You are the most important participants in the conversation" - In the Foreword to the book Dead Aid, the contributor Niall Ferguson makes an important observation – “…it has long seemed to me problematic, and even a little embarrassing, that so much of the public debate about Africa’s economic problems should be conducted by non-African white men.” Effective conversations happen when all the people involved come into the conversation and are prepared to listen and be changed by the conversation. It is in conversation where we chose to be open to new possibilities, especially when all perspectives are present
From "There is one right way" To 'There are multiple and contradictory ways to the outcomes desired" – It is uncomfortable for us to live with the ambiguity of multiple and contradictory solutions and we have a socialized preference to reject ambiguity and to move to quickly to action. We want people and governments to move quickly and to make decisions correctly, and we have low tolerance for error.
Fortunately there are personal mastery competencies that we can foster that will help us shift our thinking:

Humility – a belief that there are things that I don’t know and I want to learn from you.
Curiosity – a willingness to be open to other perspectives and to examining my own deeply held beliefs.
Unhelpfulness – as Peter Block identifies in Community : The structure of belonging,  - don’t be helpful. Being helpful and giving advice are really ways to control others. In community we want to substitute curiosity for advice.
Embrace Ambiguity – Acknowledgment of the liberating concept of  "I don’t know what I don’t know and things will emerge as we learn together".

Looking for some ideas on how to shift your thinking on international aid? Check out Community Enterprise Solutions and Changemakers. Or, share some of your own thoughts as to how we can move beyond our bias’ and neo-colonial attitudes and behaviors.

1 comment:

  1. I can appreciate the need to change from "We are experts" to "I have something to learn from you". That was a change we have made at PEPY, and it took us some time realize how ethnocentric we were to think we could come in and "help". There are still very often conversations I have with colleagues where we are debating the potential effects of our decisions, and when we have to remind ourselves to include the people who would be effected by the decisions in the conversation. With "aid" being such a debated academic topic, it is sometimes easy to get wrapped up in the philosophical arguments and forget that the philosophies and theories are a lot less important than the realities. We offer educational tours, which used to be more "volunteer tours" and we wrote more about our change in perspectives here, which relates to your post.